Megan McArdle of The Atlantic posted Finding What You Are Looking For, a column about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. She writes,
One of the things I find most wearying about writing about economics is the extent to which people attempt to hijack economics to "scientifically prove" that their value judgments about things like the proper size and role of government are 100% factually correct--as if there were some way to empirically validate the correct marginal tax rate for people making over $100,000 a year.
But even when you're careful, it's distressingly easy to find what you expect. The result is a history of science developing models that used "scientific evidence" to bolster the social hierarchy of the day. We think that phrenology and 19th century racialism are obviously preposterous--but they clearly weren't, because some very smart people believed them, and were not conscious that they were simply confirming their own prejudices.
McArdle points to a post by Keith Humphries criticizing Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a way to validate the social hierarchy of his day. The Wikipedia entry on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs describes is research.
Maslow studied what he called exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." Maslow also studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population.
Is it too far a stretch to imagine that Maslow counted himself within this social cohort, or at least desired to be seen as one with them? All this reminds me of reading a leading contemporary theologian's reconstruction of the life of Jesus. After reading it, I realized that what the author had done is projected his own personality and value system onto Jesus, so that they were virtually twins separated in time.
I am a product of a 20th social science / liberal arts education. I'm also fully aware that there is a world of difference between the laws of physics and the laws of economics or sociology. It was from this perspective that I posted to my Twitter feed that end up on my Facebook page the comment in reference to McArdle's post, "Partly why I'm a Maslow skeptic." and two friends who asked for my reasons.
Part of my response was,
It is the formulaic nature of it. I don't think it is a linear progression of steps. I don't think it is hierarchical. And even if it was, I don't believe the hierarchy is accurate. I don't think self-actualization is the peak of the pyramid. I see it as a mid-point, and that the social dimension should be higher. In essence, Maslow sets up a social philosophy that the individual is more important than society. It breeds a narcissistic view of life which is inherently unsustainable and socially divisive.
I agree with Humphries when he states,
Psychologists and social scientists generally still venture repeatedly today into the territory of human values and attempt to claim the ability to make objective judgments about which are the most healthy or scientifically validated. They don’t ever seem to learn that they are often just trying to rationalize cultural fashions: In the 1940s the “mentally healthy” person was one who respected tradition, but he morphed into the to-be-pitied “organization man” in the 1950s. Psychologists valorized divorce as the “mentally healthy choice” for those who were not “growing” in the 1970s, whereas today they tend to say that it’s better to stick it out and stop complaining so much. Maybe humility should go at the top of the pyramid of psychological development for psychologists. In a democracy, social scientists and health experts should not cast themselves as able to render objective judgments on how everyone else should live.
I have many friends and colleagues in the psychoanalytic profession who are far more humble and circumspect about what they tell their clients. They are responsible social scientists who are not trying to validate some social bias. They are genuinely caring individuals who, often out of their own healing experience, bring hope and healing to people who are in pain.
One of my real issues is the use of science - yes, I'm a believer in science - for ends that it is not designed to provide. It has become a tool for promoting all kinds of political and social ends that are not really based in science but in a pop philosophy of morality that needs scientific objectivity to prove its validity.
Does this mean that every scientific statement is subjective or merely relative? No. It means that science cannot objectively prove that Bill Gates is a superior individual to a child with Aspergers. Those measures, like Maslow's, are values based, and as a result are essentially moral codes for determining who is in and who is out in a society. Because they are values based, they are rooted in cultures that embed those values in norms and rituals. If you step back an listen you will hear those norms spoken by people. Just turn on the TV news, and what you find are intelligent people doing the same thing that Maslow did, and which McArdle laments.
We need to be humble about our ability to be truly objective. We need to let science be a process of skepticism and discovering, not promotion and social validation. And we need to realize that the challenges of the future were not in view when Maslow created his system.